analysisMiddle East

The Gaza war effect

How MBS will prop up Ramallah—and sideline Israel

It seems the kingdom is preparing to reap the political dividend of the war in Gaza in the wake of the Palestinian Authority's rise at the expense of Hamas.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Source: Social media.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Source: Social media.
Shachar Kleiman

“The map has changed. Gaza is in ruins. Hamas is mostly looking for how to save its leaders in the Strip and outside it.”

This is not some bellicose statement from the Israeli defense minister, but rather the words of one of the commentators close to the Saudi royal family, from the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

It seems the kingdom is preparing to reap the political fruits of the war in Gaza due to the strengthening of the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas.

Two senior officials in the Biden administration and the Saudi royal palace—the kingdom’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken—made it clear at a conference held in Riyadh this week that an agreement between them is right around the corner, and that “most of the details have already been finalized.”

According to Saudi officials, the door to normalization with Jerusalem is still open but depends on Israeli gestures towards the Palestinians. According to the Saudi minister, this is a “real and irreversible path to a Palestinian state,” but this statement is, of course, open to interpretation.

Similarly, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said this week that “by the end of May, several countries are expected to recognize a Palestinian state.”

It appears, then, that a deal is taking form without Israel’s say, an agreement that includes three key components:

  1. A bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia with security guarantees, and perhaps even assistance with a civilian nuclear program;
  2. Recognition of a Palestinian state by a series of European countries, and perhaps even a move in the U.N. where the U.S. will not veto a Security Council resolution to accept the Palestinian Authority as a full member state. Some call this an “irreversible path”; and
  3. In return: The Saudis will open the oil tap, which will lead to lower prices in the U.S. In six and a half months, Americans will go to the polls for the presidential elections, happy and cheerful because cheap gas at the pump will allow them to pay their bills and spend away. Joe Biden may even be able to get a second term despite his dizzying zigzag with Israel in the Gaza war.

During these months, according to those emerging understandings, if Israel winds up most of the war against Hamas, it will be able to turn to establishing relations with Saudi Arabia in return for further gestures towards the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, incidentally, is playing his role in the show well. This week he declared: “Israel has the right to security, just as the Palestinians have the right to self-determination in an independent state.” The Hamas people on social media were seething, but for the European audience in Riyadh, this was music to their ears. 

No compelling reason to normalize relations

Almost seven years have passed since Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was appointed the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. He is known for the regional blockade he imposed on neighboring Qatar and the war he has waged in Yemen. In both of these events, Prince Mohammed cut losses and changed direction: overnight he restored ties with the Gulf sheikhdom and sought a ceasefire with the Houthis.

Now, despite the rapprochement he led behind the scenes with Israel towards the Abraham Accords, Mohammed may be close to making a dramatic decision: instead of reaching normalization with Jerusalem at Ramallah’s expense, he may become Ramallah’s new patron while ignoring Jerusalem. In other words, the prince may sell his shares in normalization so that he could focus on turning the “lame duck” of the Palestinian Authority into the “alternative” to the remnants of Hamas.

It can be assumed that the Israeli government will not like this move, but it fits like a glove with the prevailing spirit among young Saudis—the prince’s base—in the wake of the war.

With an American administration that turns around like a blind tourist in a thieves’ market, Mohammed may not feel the need to pursue normalization with Israel in the initial phase of this proposed deal—especially if the U.S. security guarantees are already secured.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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